John Maxwell’s Guide to Making Good Decisions Better

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 31, 2022
John Maxwell's Guide to Making Good Decisions Better

Noted philosopher William James said that once a decision is made, you should stop worrying and start working. It’s not always what we know that makes a decision good—and maybe even great—but what we do to implement and execute it.

Let me explain. On June 14, 1969, my wife Margaret and I got married. That was a good decision. But, 53 years later, I’m here to tell you that that good decision has become a great one because of what we have done with our life since.

Too many people overrate decision-making and underrate decision-managing. If you manage  your decision incorrectly, you will receive only average results. But manage it correctly, and you will see great results.

We need both good decision making and managing for our decisions to get off the ground and become great, and doing so starts with prioritizing. But with all the decisions we make daily, how do we prioritize the decision-making process?

What’s the main event of your day?

I want to share with you a very simple approach to prioritizing that I have used for years. Every morning, I take five minutes, look at my calendar, and ask myself: Of all the people I’m going to see, and all the things I’m going to do today, what is the main event?

How do you know what your main event is? Here are a few questions I ask myself to help me come up with my main event. I call them the three R’s of prioritizing:

  1. What is required of me? 
  2. What gives me the greatest return? 
  3. What is rewarding to me?

Each morning, spend five minutes going through these questions, and once you have come up with your main event, I want you to spend more time, energy and focus on that main event than any other task in your day. You don’t have to be good at everything you do throughout the day, but you want to be prepared so you can accomplish your main event of the day.

Decision-making traps

Too often, leaders fall into traps that cause them to make faulty decisions without realizing that their methodology is flawed or their thinking lacks the necessary precision. Here are some specific pitfalls that can sabotage your efforts to express yourself wisely and decisively:

  1. Procrastinating. If you tend to dread the finality of taking a stand or calling the shots, you may be tempted to put off the decision
  2. Surrendering. Exceptionally hard decisions can deplete so much of your energy that you finally cave in. Rather than surrender, break a big decision into its smaller components and address those segments bit by bit. 
  3. Hiding behind information. Many managers’ exacting standards crave unending stacks of data before rendering a decision. The more facts and figures they accumulate, the more they want before they feel ready to decide. 
  4. Saying yes to everything. You’re not making true decisions if you’re always giving the go-ahead. Charles E. Nielsen nailed it when he said, “When, against one’s will, one is high-pressured into making a hurried decision, the best answer is always no because no is more easily changed to yes than yes is changed to no.”

I’m reminded of a great story that was told to me a few years back about former President Ronald Reagan that illustrates what can happen to us if we procrastinate making decisions. When he was a small child, he had an aunt who took him to a shoemaker to make a pair of shoes. When they arrived, the shoemaker asked the young Reagan whether he wanted the toes of his shoes squared or rounded. Not sure of the style he wanted, he told the shoemaker he would come back in a few days and let him know.

A few days later, he returned, only to tell the shoemaker he still needed a few more days to make his decision. As soon as he walked in the door the third time, the shoemaker handed him his shoes with one square-toed shoe and one round-toed shoe. Reagan said years later it was a lesson that stayed with him the rest of his life. When he wore those shoes, he said, “It was a visual reminder that if I don’t make the decision, someone else will.”

Managing good decisions 

We have talked about making good decisions—now, let’s discuss how we can make these decisions better. You do this by managing good decisions. From my book Today Matters:

“The first ingredient of success—making good decisions—has no real value without the second, which is practicing good discipline. Let’s face it: Everyone wants to be thin, but nobody wants to diet. Everyone wants to live long; not many want to exercise. Everybody wants money, yet few want to work hard. Successful people conquer their feelings and form the habit of doing things unsuccessful people do not like to do. The bookends of success are starting and finishing. Decisions help us start. Discipline helps us finish. Most people want to avoid pain, and discipline is often painful. But we need to recognize that there are really two kinds of pain when it comes to our daily conduct. There’s the pain of self-discipline and the pain of regret. Many people avoid the pain of self-discipline because it’s the easy thing to do. What they may not realize is that the pain of self-discipline is momentary but the payoff is long-lasting.”

This article was published in April 2010 and has been updated. Photo by Jade Destiny/Unsplash

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.